Thursday, April 22, 2010

So Ebert's Wrong. What Now?

Edit: I don't know if, six hours later, I still agree with any of this. The chance that I discuss at the end of this is so miniscule that it does not bear fighting towards. Let Ebert waste his rants against the irrepressible advance of time. 

Yesterday, after reading through Ebert's posting on games, I was arming myself up to write an essay here problematizing the question of whether to ignore him or argue with him. I was originally going to draw a parallel to the anti-libel suit that James Abbott McNeill Whistler levelled against John Ruskin in the late 19th century. Late in his career, Ruskin, as the premier 'man of taste' in the Victorian world (and brilliantly deserving of the distinction for most of his life), put on his old man pants and grumpily wrote a response to Whistler's experimental work in which he said: "I have seen, and heard, much of cockney impudence before now; but never expected a coxcomb to ask two hundred guineas for flinging a pot of paint in the public’s face." Whistler won the suit, greatly diminishing Ruskin's clout, and although he bankrupted himself in doing so, he nevertheless was successful not only in defending his art, but also in forcing recognition of his work.

Ebert, like Ruskin, is an arbiter of cultural valuation, a 'man of taste' and, at least with regards to movies, he has earned his position. Where Ruskin merely attacked a single artist (and artistic movement), Ebert is irresponsibly using his cultural sway to slander an entire medium with baseless, poorly made claims and specious arguments. And though history will prove him wrong in time, I initially saw a space, or a call, for a Whistler figure to stand in the defense of games and, by fighting, force a recognition of gaming as an artistic medium.

But, really, what's the point? On one side the question of whether games can be art is entirely outside of the concerns of the average person. On the other side, the question is so puerile it does not even bear consideration - of course games are art, how could they be anything other than art? In order to claim that some creative product is not art, one must define art. But there has never been a useful definition of what is and is not art, and there never will be.

There are three thousand comments on Ebert's posts, but nothing is decided by the end. Ebert's mind isn't changed. The entire article displays that he doesn't even consider the issue one that bears discussing and his three or four responses amongst the thousands of comments are snide and completely disengaged, showing his disdain for even needing to consider it.

It's frustrating, because as ridiculous as his claim is, there are people who do listen to him. It's frustrating, because those of us within the culture have found so much that is revelatory and incredible within gaming that we can't help but cry out for recognition from the rest of society. (Except for the 'games are not art yet' apologists. I don't know if they're imbeciles or traitors, but the absolute hollowness of that utterance suggests that they are probably both.)

We could use a Whistler figure right now, someone with enough eloquence and cultural weight to actually set down an impassioned defense of games. But even if some titan of the industry stood up in defense of games, who would pay attention except for us gamers? Ebert doesn't know who Ken Levine and Gabe Newell are, and he probably never will. It's clear from the article that he deems the entire discussion so far below him that he probably would not lower himself to defending his opinion. The nightly news is probably not going to provide commentary on Ebert versus Wright. The average person on the street is probably not going to change their opinion on gaming. There probably will not be an opening for any meaningful public discourse on the value of games.

Probably. But there's always that little nugget of a chance. I can't do it, as much as I would love to argue with Ebert about this topic. The three thousand posters on the article can't do it. The thousands of other bloggers who write about games can't do it. Games journalists, as much as we love them, probably can't do it. It would need to be a games designer that the public knows. It would need to be someone that the culture can recognize as an artist.

We don't need a Whistler figure, surely, but if one stood up, and was heard, then perhaps we could move gaming forward in cultural recognition by fifteen years. And, as much as you may pretend that gaming does not need cultural acceptance, it does, for it's own benefit and for the benefit of the culture at large. We don't need to defend ourselves against Ebert. His ignorant jabs at gaming are not born of targeted malice, he simply stumbled into an unfamiliar area and got scared and aggressive. But we should see his flailing as an opportunity to raise a voice to the culture and perhaps get people talking about games in a way that doesn't involve sexboxes and child-focused murder simulators.

Sunday, April 11, 2010

Evolution of a Thesis, Development of a Curriculum: Part One - The Books

Over the past few weeks I have gone on a bit of a book buying spree. I have boasted about happily advertised the number of books that I've bought, and there's been some interest in what, exactly, I plan on doing with all of these texts, which are currently stacked in massive piles in my spare room:
The books generally serve to fill three purposes. Many are texts for the comprehensive exam, a required part of a master's degree in English. Most of the others are intended for use either in developing my thesis or in building a course curriculum for next fall. Then, of course, there are the others that I picked up for my own interest. The following lists are partly for my own record-keeping, and partly for reference for anyone interested in the topic. Buckle up folks, this may take a while.

The Comps Books
 The books in this section are for the comp exam. I'll be reading all of these over the course of the summer and early fall. I'm torn between excitement and fear, as I'm sure most people are who face such a pile. They are in no particular order.
  • Aphra Behn, Oroonoko, The Rover and Other Works.
  • Mary Rowlandson, The Sovereignty and Goodness of God.
  • Jane Tompkins, Sensational Designs.
  • Virginia Woolf, To the Lighthouse.
  • Herman Melville, Billy Budd and Other Tales. - Includes "The Piazza Tales."
  • Walter Benjamin, Illuminations.
  • Vladimir Nabokov, Pale Fire.
  • W.B. Yeats, The Tower.
  • Ben Jonson, The Alchemist and Other Plays. - Includes "Bartholomew Fair."
  • Henry James, The Ambassadors.
  • Edward Said, Orientalism.
  • George Herbert, The Complete English Poems. - Includes "The Temple."
  • H.D., Trilogy.
  • Elizabeth Barret Browning, Aurora Leigh.
  • Judith Butler, Gender Trouble.
  • Samuel Webster, The Duchess of Malfi and Other Plays. - Includes "The White Devil."
  • bpNichol, The Martyrology, Books 1&2
  • Adrienne Kennedy, The Adrienne Kennedy Reader.
  • William Apess, A Son of the Forest and Other Writings.
  • John Milton, Paradise Lost.
  • Emily Dickinson, Final Harvest.
  • Alaine Locke (ed.), The New Negro.
  • Leslie Marmon Silko, Cermony.
  • Geoffrey Chaucer, The Canterbury Tales.
  • George Eliot, Middlemarch.
  • Anne Radcliffe, The Italian.
  • Phillis Wheatley, The Poems of Phillis Wheatley.
  • Alan Grossman and Mark Halliday, The Sighted Singer. - Includes "Summa Lyrica."
Not pictured or not yet purchased:
  • William Shakespeare, King Lear and Measure for Measure.
  • Poems: Alexander Pope - "The Rape of the Lock"; William Wordsworth - "Tintern Abby," the 1799 Prelude, "Resolution and Independence" and "Ode: Intimations of Immortality"; Samuel Taylor Coleridge - "Frost at Midnight" and "Dejection: an Ode."
  • Four essays on Composition and Rhetoric: "Writing and Collaboration" by Kenneth Bruffee, "In the Turbulence of Theory" by Lester Faigley, "A Humanistic Rationale for Technical Writing" by Carolyn Miller, and "A Pedagogy of Multiliteracies: Designing Social Futures" Ed. by Bill Cope and Mary Kalantzis.

Gaming, Narratives and Culture - Books for a Curriculum and a Thesis
These two purposes are lumped together simply because many of the titles work for both purposes. The curriculum I am building is centered around the question: "What is the cultural value of video gaming?" I'll post more insight later about the curriculum's intent and design as I work through it. My current idea for a thesis (subject to slight shifts as I research the topic) is to look at the ways that games tell narratives, specifically looking at the ways that games incorporate player choice and player agency. I intend to try and find precedents within the field of literary theory for how the author interacts with the player/reader and what role the player/reader fills in the act of reading. I'll discuss this more at a later point as well. I've placed the more popularly-oriented texts first, before going into the more theoretical, scholarly works.
  • Steven Johnson, Everything Bad is Good for You. - A response to Niel Postman's Amusing Ourselves to Death, Johnson here argues that the media we consume on a daily basis may actually be making us smarter by presenting us with new cognitive challenges and modes of thought. An interesting conceit, but I'm not sure I'm convinced yet; we'll see how he builds his argument.
  • Steven Poole, Trigger Happy - A relatively early (2000) critical look at the history and development of video games, how they work and how they change the act of expression and the act of ... consumption, perhaps? (I've had difficulty coming up with a broader term for the acts of reading, viewing and playing. I don't like consumption, for it's obvious economic facet, but few other words account for the agency of the reader/watcher/player.)
  • James Paul Gee, Why Video Games Are Good for Your Soul. - A discussion of how games foster learning, Gee develops the ideas that he worked with in his earlier book What Video Games Have to Teach Us about Learning and Literacy. This book presents an idea for how games should be approached in order for them to be fulfilling and valuable.
  • Gerard Jones, Killing Monsters: Why Children Need Fantasy, Super Heroes, and Make Believe Violence. - The title says it all. I'm interested to see how he makes his case. 
  • J.C. Herz, Joystick Nation. - Another early (1997) look at the history of the gaming phenomenon. 
  • Lawrence Kutner and Cheryl K. Olson, Grand Theft Childhood. - Despite the alarmist title, one of the most rational and valuable approaches to the way violence in games actually affects children, as well as how it does not. I love their research strategy, instead of sitting a kid in a white sterile room playing GTA for an hour and then seeing if he punches a rubber clown, Kutner, Olson and their research team actually went and talked to children about games and about violence.
  • Alexander Galloway, Gaming: Essays on Algorithmic Culture. - Ah, now we're getting into the theory books. In this book, Galloway tries to build a critical, conceptual framework for thinking about and responding to games. 
  • Gail Hawisher and Cynthia Selfe (eds.), Gaming Lives in the Twenty-First Century. -  Hawisher and Selfe (two important academics in composition studies) look at the development of literacies in gaming environments. A fascinating work born of the recent connection between composition studies and gaming that James Gee outlined (he also wrote the intro for this book). 
  • James Paul Gee, What Video Games Have to Teach Us about Learning and Literacy. - Gee's excellent argument that gaming represents a new and powerful type of literacy, that we learn to read games just as we learn to read texts, has drawn significant interest recently. Gee (who proved himself as a brilliant scholar in his earlier work on genres and literacies) is largely responsible for opening games up as an avenue for serious critical inquiry. 
  • James Paul Gee, Good Games and Good Learning. - Continuing his earlier work, the essays in this book are brief and intriguing, broadly covering a wide number of topics and arguments.
  • Yasmin Kafai, Carrie Heeter, Jill Denner and Jennifer Sun (eds.), Beyond Barbie and Mortal Kombat: New Perspectives on Gender and Gaming. - In this book, Kafai, Heeter, Denner and Sun return to a topic covered in an earlier work (Barbie and Mortal Kombat) to examine the changing face of gender in games and gaming culture.
  • Ian Bogost, Unit Operations. - Bogost here attempts to build a link between literary theory and computer technology, in order to propose new theoretical frameworks for analyzing video games, and new theoretical modes that can be used to understand other forms of literature and art. This particular book focuses on the idea of discrete 'units' of meaning which operate upon and in relation to each other according to configurative systems and structures. I'm intrigued to find out more.
  • Ian Bogost, Persuasive Games. - Like the above book, Bogost's more recent work is exploring new ways to think about gaming. Here he's arguing for the way that games introduce a new and highly effective form of rhetoric, 'procedural rhetoric' - the ability to model a procedural system in the form of processes rather than words, and therefore make commentary upon those systems in processes rather than words or pictures. It's a fascinating idea, and I have had a hard time setting it aside since I got it. 
  • Lester Faigley, Fragments of Rationality. - While not about games directly, this book is the first instance of someone in the field of composition studies applying a post-modern understanding to the act of composition in the emergent technological world. Very interesting stuff. 
  • Janet Murray, Hamlet on the Holodeck. - This 1997 book tries to explore the possibilities for narratives within our changing technological landscape. It is hopeful and yet cautionary: "This book is an attempt to imagine a future digital medium, shaped by the hacker's spirit and the enduring power of the imagination and worthy of the rapture our children are bringing to it." Interesting stuff.
  • Pat Harrigan and Noah Wardrip-Fruin, First Person, Second Person, and Third Person. - These three books examine story and narrative in new media and gaming. They look fascinating, though I haven't had time to look them over and get a broad view of their central ideas.
  • Paula Reed Nancarrow et. al., Word Processors and the Writing Process: An Annotated Bibliography. - Not about games or narratives, this 1983 book is nevertheless fascinating for it's broad coverage of the emergence of the word-processor as a tool in Composition studies, and the hopes and fears it engendered in the field.
Not pictured.
  • Dave Grossman, Stop Teaching Our Kids to Kill. - Grossman was one of the go-to guys for anti-game punditry in the years after the Columbine shootings. Working from Craig Anderson's research (whose methods were later called into question), Grossman makes the argument that violence in media is desensitizing our children to violence (a claim I don't entirely refute), and that games are "murder-simulators" that train children to kill without emotion. It's alarmist and sensational, but I look forward to reading this book anyway.

Other Books Bought
Just for fun, although I have no idea when I intend to read any of these.
  • Friedrich Nietzsche, Thus Spoke Zarathustra.
  • T.S. Eliot, The Wasteland
  • Dante Alighieri, The Divine Comedies.
  • Herman Melville, Moby Dick
  • Marcel Proust, Days of Reading.
  • and finally... Bullfinch's Mythology 
So. That's all of them. I can't believe I just typed that all out, especially given the other, more pressing matters awaiting my attention, but this will be helpful for my own future reference. 

Thursday, April 8, 2010

7 Reasons Why It's Okay to Reverently Anticipate Fallout: New Vegas

It's always risky to get caught up in the hype for a game. As anticipation and excitement builds, so too do expectations and emotional investment, until even a minor flaw in an otherwise excellent game can feel like a personal betrayal. This effect is stronger when dealing with well-loved franchises, where the emotional investment has been established over years and years. It is usually advisable to maintain objectivity in order to protect your own enjoyment of the experience.

With a game like Fallout: New Vegas, however, it's much safer to throw sobriety out of the window, covered in streamers and raining confetti. Here's why:
  1. It's Fallout. This may be obvious, but it's kind of important. 
  2. It's built on an established engine. The engine that Bethesda used to build both TES: Oblivion and Fallout 3 has clearly demonstrated its ability to create massive, detailed, open worlds that communicate a clear sense of environment and scale. Fallout 3 proved that the Fallout universe could not only function within a fully 3D environment viewed from a first person perspective, but could flourish, dramatically increasing the emotional impact and scale of the Fallout setting.
  3. It's going to be in Vegas. There is no better city to embody the darker side of the American identity than Las Vegas, and, if the trailer is any indication, the manic celebration of vice, fantasy and artificiality is still very much alive and buzzing in the post-nuclear world.
  4. There is a 'Hard Core' mode. There was little threat from the environment in Fallout 3, which frustratingly ignored the fact that you were living in a post-apocalyptic wasteland. This new mode finally tries to bring the player's struggle into the setting: dehydration is a concern, ammo has weight, stimpacks heal over time. These small changes allow the narrative setting to have an impact on the player, so that the post-apocalyptic world becomes a part of the story, instead of just being the place where it happens.
  5. Bethesda is producing it. Bethesda has demonstrated that they are strongly committed to their players and their community. They've long supported and encouraged the mod community, and have given players wide access to development tools. Despite a few hiccups in the early days of Oblivion, they've also proven to be a leader in the field of downloadable content, especially with Fallout 3. Moreover, if #4 is any indication, they are also paying attention: survival mods are some of the more popular game-changing downloads, as are mods which add weapon modification options (another new feature in New Vegas).
  6. Obsidian is developing it. Obsidian may seem like a natural choice to develop a big-name sequel, since they've certainly earned their reputation as the go-to studio for follow-ups to big RPG titles. But for them, this is not just any other sequel: the studio was founded by the producer of the original Fallout, Feargus Urquhart, and other victims of the Interplay diaspora. Moreover, the members of the core creative design team for New Vegas all have previous Fallout experience, including Chris Avellone (Fallout 2), Brian Menzie (Fallout 1+2) and Josh Sawyer (Fallout 3). 
  7. This Picture: 

Yes. that just happened.

I, for one, intend to throw caution and sobriety to the wind. Nothing's a sure bet, but the deck certainly seems stacked in our favor. Here's to drunken anticipation.

Tuesday, March 30, 2010

Too Long Gone

It's been far too long since I last posted anything here, but I intend to change that over the course of the next few months. Moving forward, with a new name and a new look, I intend to begin posting new reviews and commentary on the games I've played and am playing. I have quite a backlog of finished games that all merit discussion, and I hope to begin to catch up and move forward over the next few months.

I also intend to report upon the progress of my work developing a curriculum for English 101 (good old college composition) which will focus on arguments surrounding the cultural value of games.

As I read through the literature and scholarship within that area of study, I will post thoughts and reactions here.